In researching their book True North, Bill George and Peter Scott interviewed 125 leaders. One of the most striking recurring themes of these interviews was the extent to which the unique life story of each individual leader had shaped their leadership journey, fuelling their passion, shaping their values and sharpening their focus. Not just the good chapters but almost more so the bad. This last point resonates powerfully with me as I reflect on my own journey through mental illness and the way in which this has contributed significantly to the narrative of my life, and the way I have sought to allow it to shape my leadership journey.
One of the most striking examples of this characteristic cited by George and Scott is that of Howard Schulz, the founder of Starbucks. If you’ve not read his book Onward I’d highly recommend it to you. In his autobiographical writing Schulz links one of the aspects of the culture he created at Starbucks directly to his experience as a young boy of his father’s struggle to obtain healthcare throughout his career. This experience contributed to Schulz establishing the first American company that provided healthcare to employees who worked for as little as 20 hours a week. Schulz unashamedly attributes his vision for Starbucks and its success to his life story. He is one of many leaders whose authenticity is undoubtedly rooted in his life story and the extent to which he allowed it to shape him as a person and his leadership passion, values and focus.
It occurs to me that authentic leaders not only embrace their life story, they tell it and in the process invite those they lead to participate in that narrative. My own leadership journey in recent years has taught me that it is far more powerful to lead out of testimony than text book. Apart from anything else telling my story helps me establish an emotional connection and empathy with those I lead. As I’ve posted before I believe emotional connection and empathy are two of the most important attributes of leadership.
But authentic leaders are not just story tellers they are also avid readers of the stories of others. Not only do they embrace their own life narrative they embrace the narrative of those they lead. They understand those they lead are not blank sheets of paper on which they get to write their story but acknowledge each person has a unique life story which is in the process of being written and to which they get to contribute. As I reflect on my leadership journey I recognise the handwriting of a number of great leaders on the pages of my life story and leadership journal. Similarly I’d like to think along the way I have written on the pages of other people’s lives and in some way contributed to their leadership journey.
If any of this is right then it provokes the following questions to those of us who aspire to lead authentically:
• What is your life story?
• How is it fuelling your passion, shaping your values and sharpening your focus?
• How well are you telling your story and how effectively are you inviting others to contribute to it?
• How well do you know the life stories of those you are leading and how effectively are you contributing to these?
I’ll leave you with one final thought:
Every person, every marriage, every family, every community, every business has a narrative. Often not spoken or written this narrative is nevertheless a story which in the past tense is history and in the future is destiny. We are at our most authentic when we embrace that narrative, the good, the bad and the ugly. Authentic leaders embrace their personal life story and allow it to fuel their passion, shape their values and sharpen their focus. They pay attention to the narrative of the organisations and people they lead. In that sense authentic leaders are story readers and story writers.